“Quality football may be closer than it appears.”
Looking in the mirror at the Week 2 Steelers vs. Seahawks game it stood out to me how close the Steelers were to winning football. In a game that is often decided by a few plays, there were plenty of “almost” and “if only” moments in that game, any one of them could have turned the tide. Let’s look at some examples of plays that put the Steelers on the wrong side of a 2-point game.
Keep an eye on JuJu Smith-Schuster, middle receiver to the top of the screen.
Here Ben Roethlisberger looks left, then middle, then right, then goes back to Ryan Switzer who is just trying to box out his DB. The problem on this play is that Ben was looking to his left to start the play. I don’t know what the thought process was, don’t know if everyone even ran the right routes, but take a look at the field pre-snap.
Bottom of the screen you have 2 DBs on 2 WRs, top of the screen you have 2 DBs on 3 WRs, with a LB in the middle slightly to that side. Two players are off-screen deep. With the routes the WRs are running on this play, unless the defender comes from the deep middle really fast or the DB on the 49 yard line is covering Smith-Schuster, Ben has an easy pass with a numbers advantage. And that’s what we see happen in the play.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is wide open here, Ben Roethlisberger is looking to the middle and you can see the LB stepping to the middle as JuJu breaks to the right, with no one even looking at him.
If Roethlisberger is looking at James Washington right off the bat, he can hold that LB, then hit JuJu in the flat for easy yards. This is the kind of pre-snap reads Roethlisberger hasn’t been making this season. I don’t know if it is rust, or the new offense, or being uncomfortable with his receivers, but he looked like he was forcing things instead of just taking what was already there.
The next play
Johnny Holton is in the trips formation, he’s the WR on the line, in front of the other receivers. This play the Steelers used pre-snap motion to get Johnny Holton’s defender to step up into tighter coverage, giving Holton a better start to get open, and he does. Here Roethlisberger leads the pass a bit too far and it would have required an amazing catch to make this play. If the ball is 2 feet back it’s a huge gain. Ben was playing with a hurt elbow, so I get why he missed this throw, but the play design worked and the Steelers were unable to take advantage. A healthy elbow and that drive doesn’t end in a punt, and again, it was a 2-point game.
Many fans are giving up on the Steelers with Roethlisberger on IR, but this offense has been off in large part because Ben hasn’t been good, let alone the QB the Steelers are accustomed to.
Moving on to defense
This play epitomizes the trouble the Steelers have had in run defense so far this season. The Defensive Tackle to the bottom of the screen is Javon Hargrave, rotating in for Stephon Tuitt. Watt aggressively moves upfield and is sealed out of the play, while Hargrave, Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams and Devin Bush are all blocked 1v1. The Seahawks did something interesting here. They are running 3 WRs and a RB, but the TE spot is filled by tackle-eligible George Fant. The Steelers worry more about the WRs and stay in nickle, and with Tuitt on the bench, no Steeler in the front 6 beats a 1v1 block.
Seattle would use this a good bit, running 79 total offensive plays and playing a 6th OL 16 times, 20.5% of their offensive plays.
It’s an interesting tactic, and the Steelers will need an adjustment for it if other teams try it.
Watch the motion by Seattle and how it affects the coverage. The quick snap is not a coincidence
Steelers are in man, Terrell Edmunds is on Tyler Lockett, but the motion changes assignments and Edmunds ends up on the RB with Haden taking Lockett. Barron is blitzing and it leaves Devin Bush covering the TE.
Bush starts in poor position, tries and fails to disrupt the route and Wilson has an easy pass over Bush for the TD. Davis is in single high zone, if Bush is relying on Davis for help he needs to force the TE inside, but he forces him outside because of where he starts the play.
When the Steelers are in man both Russell Wilson and Tom Brady have used motion to get Bush on a tough assignment where they can take advantage of his lack of experience. Expect that to continue until Bush makes somebody pay for it. It will happen, especially when he faces some lesser QBs. Until then, the Steelers are stuck waiting for Bush’s on the job training to pay off.
Lastly, we need to look to the future of this season, Mason Rudolph
Here we see Mason Rudolph doing exactly what you want from a young QB in his first real NFL action. He uses motion to give JuJu a cushion, and then uses that cushion to move the sticks on 2nd and 5.
If Mason Rudolph can utilize his reads and set up and take the easy yards the Steelers will move the ball effectively, like they did under Rudolph in this game. Rudolph’s 31.6 yards per drive in the second half against Seattle was better than Ben Roethlisberger in either game, and his 3.4 points per drive were more than double Ben’s first half performance.
I’m not saying it’s time to move on from Ben Roethlisberger, I’m just saying that Mason Rudolph at QB could very well be better than what the Steelers were getting from Roethlisberger in the first 2 games.
A few longer drives a game could do wonders for the Steelers, who right now have run the 3rd fewest offensive plays, and faced the 4th most plays on defense. And when you factor in the drop off in run defense when Stephon Tuitt leaves the game, fewer plays means fewer plays Tuitt needs to be off the field.
So while things aren’t great in Pittsburgh with the Steelers at 0-2 and heading to the west coast, where they have struggled to even look competent at football, there are reasons to believe that not all is lost, and this team could turn things around.